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The Rise and Fall: The Golden Age of Motels

June 26, 2012 Archive Insight

Summer is here, and many of us look forward to an escape from the daily grind with some relaxation and down time. Our thoughts turn to sandy beaches, summer cottages, picnics.

Today, Internet reservation systems and freeway exit signs make it easy to find lodging on route to our final destination. Except for the venerable old hotels in cities and resort areas, most roadside lodgings are pretty much the same: branded national chains that offer few surprises.

The rise: Motels spring up across America

There was once a time when every roadside lodging was unique. These were the “mom-and-pop” motels that dotted every highway across the country. They had their origins in the 1920s and 1930s with the primitive tourist cabins similar to the one from the photograph from our collections pictured above. These cabins offered the privacy and shelter lacking in the earlier auto camps.

Tourist Court - from the Collections at The Henry Ford

Tourist cabins and cottages were increasingly clustered together into larger tourist courts such as the one depicted on this postcard. They featured enhanced amenities such as private showers, gas pumps and lunch rooms. When tourist court owners realized they could save money by stringing together rooms into single integrated units - the motel was born.

The golden age

After World War II, thousands of new motels beckoned motorists with their bold, colorful signs and unique versions of homey comfort.

Tourist Court postcard front - from the Collections at The Henry Ford

Today, these postcards offer silent testimony to the many varieties in motel design.

Tourist Court postcard back - 1947 from the Collections at The Henry Ford

On the backs of many of these postcards, we get an idea of the once-modern amenities proudly described by motel owners. Features such as tiled bathrooms and thermostatic controlled heat to carpeted floors and Sealy or Beauty-Rest mattresses, are just a few.

Artifacts of motels of the past

In addition to motel postcards from past vacations, what other material evidence survives today from this golden age? We asked this question when we installed a small display of motel items for our Driving America exhibition that opened in January. What items conveyed both the national popularity of motels and the unique attributes of each motel? Here are some of our finds:

Room keys

Today, we are handed electronic key cards programmed to open the door to our room. Once returned, they can be re-programmed to open someone else’s room the very same day.

Motel room key - The Collections at The Henry Ford

Although each motel room key was unique, this example from the Sea Breeze Motel depicts a popular example. If you forgot to return your key at check out, a message on the oversized key fob encouraged you to just drop it in the nearest mailbox with return postage guaranteed.

Ashtrays and matches

With the popularity of cigarette smoking, motel owners did their best to prevent cigarette burns on furniture, carpets and mattresses by providing ashtrays such as this one from the Westward Ho Motel. Savvy owners didn't miss the opportunity to throw in a little advertising as well.

Matchbooks like these three examples were ubiquitous at this time with the expectation that smokers would pocket them for later use.

Motel matchbooks - from the Collections at The Henry Ford

Put out by match companies, these free throw-away souvenirs offered advertising for both the motel and the match producer.

Soap

Also realizing the lucrative benefits of advertising, soap companies produced pocket-sized versions of their soaps for motels, like these examples.

Motel Soap - The Collections at The Henry Ford

It wasn't uncommon at the time for the soap company’s name or logo to be larger than the name of the motel.

The fall: Inns are in

Motels thrived during the 1950s and 1960s, but by the end of that time, many had fallen on hard times. Ongoing maintenance was expensive and travelers had come to expect more. We can thank Kemmons Wilson for heightening travelers' expectations with the franchising of his Holiday Inn - a new lodging concept that began in 1957 - enticing customers with its flashy neon signs.

Holiday Inn Sign - Driving America at The Henry Ford

Every Holiday Inn promised the same deluxe amenities—free in-room TV and telephone, air conditioning, free ice, a family restaurant and swimming pool. Soon other chains followed suit. Privately owned motels run on modest budgets by hard-working families or couples just couldn’t compete. By the 1980s, the golden age of motels was pretty much a thing of the past.

Donna Braden is Senior Curator and Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford. She enjoys sleuthing classic motels on Route 66, and has even stayed in a few!

travel, roads and road trips, hotels, by Donna R. Braden

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